Words Were Exchanged
by Michael Yaworsky
Whitby filed slowly past the ranks of sullen, somber, seated men, portioning out the rations. His unit and the 83rd had accepted the surrender of over 450 Wehrmacht soldiers. It was April, 1945. The end of the war was near and everybody knew it. These men were dispirited, tired, cold, hungry, and afraid.
Whitby stopped before each captive, bending low to dole out the food. Almost without exception they accepted it silently, not meeting his eyes or saying a word. But the last man he passed had said, “Thank you.” Not danke, but thank you. He was the last guy before Whitby would have to trudge back to the truck for another load. Vecchio, Whitby’s guard, was in no hurry. Neither was Whitby. There was no rush. They’d be here for hours feeding these prisoners.
Whitby looked at the man who’d said thank you. “You know English?” he asked.
“Only few words,” the man said quietly. “Hello, good bye, please, thank you.” He looked totally defeated.
“Morgen?” Whitby asked.
The German eyed him cautiously before responding, “morning.”
Whitby nodded. He looked around. All these men. It was quite a sight.
“Abend?” Whitby asked.
“Entschuldigen sie bitte?”
“Um… excuse me please.”
“How about, essen?”
“To eat,” said the German. He set his bowl on the ground, perhaps consciously, perhaps not.
Whitby surveyed the gathered prisoners again and shook his head. Vecchio was eyeing them as well, senses alert, machine gun at the ready, but there didn’t seem much to be alert about at the moment. Things were quiet, the situation under control.
Whitby said to the German, “Krieg?”
This time the man neither answered nor looked at him. “Krieg?” repeated Whitby.
Looking off to one side, the man said quietly, “war.” His expression didn’t change. Whether he was deep in thought, had emotionally shut down, or… what, it was impossible to tell.
“Friede?” The German’s eyes seemed to flicker but other than that his expression did not change.
“Friede?” Whitby repeated.
The prisoner shifted slightly but his eyes still didn’t meet Whitby’s. They focused on some distant point on the horizon. “Peace,” he said quietly.
“That’s right,” Whitby said. “Peace.”
Whitby looked again at the crowd of men eating. It was quiet for such a large assemblage. The English-speaking man sat silently at Whitby’s feet. Vecchio did nothing to hurry things along, just kept a vigilant eye out. It was all the same to him.
Tomasevich appeared at Vecchio’s side. “Who the hell’s Frieda?” he asked.
Whitby asked him, “What?”
“Frieda. What’s that, this kraut’s wife?”
“Knock it off, Tomasevich.”
“I heard you, you were pretty cozy with him,” Tomasevich continued, jutting his chin to indicate the prisoner. “So what’s with Frieda? You telling him what you’re going to do with his frau while he’s a guest in Uncle Sam’s POW camp?”
“Go to hell, Tomasevich.”
“We’re already in hell.”
“Yeah we are.”
“Thanks tohim and his buddies.”
“Leave him alone. He can’t do any more harm. He’s got a couple dozen more kinds of hell to go through before he’s done. So’s his family.”
“So have we all.”
“Yeah, so have we all. Let it go.”
Whitby glanced at the German, who was still looking straight ahead. Whitby couldn’t tell if he’d understood the exchange that had just taken place or not.
Whitby said to the man, “Verzeihen?”
There was no response.
The German said quietly, “To forgive. To be forgiven.” Then more quietly, “Oder nicht” (or not). He hung his head.
Whitby probed. “Vielleicht?” (Maybe?)
“Vielleicht,” the German said. “Oder, vielleicht nicht.” (Or, maybe not.)
Michael Yaworsky is a retired attorney and legal editor. He and his family live in Rochester’s 19th Ward neighborhood.